I still remember the occasion when Brahms’ music entered my life. Well, actually, it knocked me sideways – it was while watching the film of Lynne Reid Banks’ novel, ‘The L-Shaped Room’ on television as a teenager. Posters for the film state that the score is by John Barry, and indeed the jazz number in the nightclub scene is by him. But the majority of the background music is a recording of the first movement of Brahms’ First Piano Concerto, Opus 15, performed by Peter Katin. The film clip above has part of the concerto, starting at about 2:49. Its emotional intensity, mirroring that of the film, was compelling, and the next day I went out and bought a recording which I still treasure – Emil Gilels with the Berlin Philharmonic, conducted by Eugen Jochum.
The concerto, in D minor, started life as a sonata for two pianos in 1854, and was dedicated to Brahms’ friend Julius Otto Grimm. It turned into a four movement symphony en route to its final destination as a concerto.
I mention this because I’m currently performing Brahms’ Ballade Op 10 no 1 in D minor, known as the ‘Edward’ Ballade, from his set of four Ballades, written at the same time in 1854, and dedicated to his friend, Julius O Grimm. I privately wonder if the first movement of the concerto grew out of the Ballade; it shares the same dark feeling of tragedy as well as the same key.
The Ballades Op 10 form an interesting set of early pieces, written when Brahms was 21. A great friend of the Schumann family, and a particular support to Clara Schumann during her husband’s mental illness, Brahms sent the manuscript to Schumann while Schumann was in the Endenich sanatorium, via Joachim, who visited him. Schumann wrote to Clara and Brahms about the Ballades: ‘… how wonderful the first is, absolutely new…’ , and on 11 January 1855 Brahms visited Schumann and performed the Ballades to him.
The first Ballade was inspired by a German translation of a Scottish literary ballad, ‘Edward‘ – here is a link to the original Scottish version as well as Johann Herder’s German translation, which sparked other composers, too – Schubert and Loewe both set the words as songs.
Written as a dialogue, it tells the gradually-unfolding story of a mother questioning her son about the blood on his sword; he replies saying that he has killed his hawk. She asks again – he changes his answer – he has killed his steed. She questions a third time – and he confesses to having killed his own father. And at the end of the ballad, he states that she will bear the curse for it.
Grim stuff, and Brahms’ instrumental piece has all the forbidding atmosphere of a ruined Scottish castle, steeped in dark history.
The ominous chordal passage which opens the piece follows the rhythm of mother’s words exactly – ‘Dein Schwert, wie ists’ von Blut so rot? Edward. Edward‘ -a falling, two-note slur representing the two syllables of his name.
Her son replies glibly -in a different tonality, and more quickly, as he lies about the blood: ‘O ich hab geschlagen meinen Geier tot’.
Again comes a question, more slowly; and again a flippant, untruthful answer.
The music now changes to a major key, and a long passage is built on a musical motif from Edward’s replies. Against it is a new triplet figure, combining to create a massive climax at Edward’s impassioned outburst: ‘O ich hab geschlagen meinen Vater tot’ which is heard three times in full, then in ever-smaller fragments.
One last question from the mother, accompanied by a disturbing LH figure, a ragged remnant of the triplet idea. But the question is left unanswered; Edward has fled. The piece ends quietly, with no slowing down, no reply – and no happy ending.
Here is Gilels :